Tammuz: The 30-year story of Israel's famous missile

MILITARY AFFAIRS: Tracking 30 years of development from a secretive Israeli project to a world-renowned missile.

A TAMMUZ MISSILE launched from an IDF tank. (photo credit: RAFAEL ADVANCED SYSTEMS)
A TAMMUZ MISSILE launched from an IDF tank.

It’s been 30 years since the IDF began to use a once-secret missile that has now been sold to dozens of countries around the world and, according to foreign reports, used by the Israeli military against Iranian targets in Syria.

The story of the surface-to-surface fire-and-forget Tammuz (Spike) missile, which was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, begins in 1974 just after the Yom Kippur War, where the IDF faced difficult operational scenarios of numerous tank conveys invading Israel which were difficult to stop.

“We needed a solution to stop the convoys before they arrived at our border and before our units entered their range,” said Zvi Marmor, head of the Precision Tactical Weapons Systems Division at Rafael. “We wanted a doomsday weapon to make sure that Yom Kippur wouldn’t happen again.”

The Yom Kippur War came almost as a complete surprise to Israel, and warning notice was given too late for an orderly call-up of the reserves before the Syrian and Egyptian armies, trained by the Soviet Union and armed with a profusion of modern weapons, launched a joint surprise attack on IDF positions on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula.

The war has gone down in Israel’s history as a failure that saw 2,688 IDF soldiers killed, thousands more wounded and hundreds captured. More than 1,000 tanks and hundreds of aircraft were destroyed or damaged.

Yom Kippur war (credit: Menashe Azuri / La'am)Yom Kippur war (credit: Menashe Azuri / La'am)

It was also around that time that the Soviet-made T-72 tank arrived in the Middle East, a modern tank that the missiles of the IDF couldn’t stop.

And so, several years after the initial idea was brought up, in 1979, began the very secret project that developed the first electro-optic missile in the world for land forces that would be able to stop such tanks.

Work on the missile and its launcher went ahead at full speed, and in 1982 the first development was finalized and Rafael began to produce it for the IDF, which then deployed the secret missile to the Moran unit of the Paratroopers Brigade, Marmor told The Jerusalem Post.

Several years later, in 1991, the IDF decided to move the unit to the Artillery Corps and renamed it Meitar, since the Paratroopers unit “wasn’t a good place for the missile, since it had complex operational challenges,” he added. 

It was first used by the IDF’s Artillery Corps in 1991, and several years later, the Spike was also installed on aircraft and naval ships, and it was first used during the Second Intifada by soldiers from the Artillery Corps’ Meitar unit against Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip and later against Hezbollah during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when some 500 missiles were fired at targets belonging to the terrorist group.

In the years since then, Rafael has upgraded the capabilities (NLOS) of the initial missile as well as its range (from 6-8 km. to 32 km.) and lethality.

The missile is capable of penetrating 39 inches (99 cm.) of armor and can be operated in either a direct attack or mid-course navigation based on target coordinates only. These modes enable the defeat of long-range hidden targets, with pinpoint precision, damage assessment, and the obtaining of real time intelligence.

It can be fired from vehicles, helicopters, ships and ground launchers, and has advanced electro-optic seekers which include capabilities of a smart target tracker with artificial intelligence features.

Designed for use against new modern targets with a low signature and time-sensitive characteristics, the missile also includes new third-party target allocation (networked-enabled) enhancement with an embedded inertial measurement unit assembly, which allows the missiles to be fired to grid target coordinates, including advanced armor and protection systems, making it one of the only missiles in the world with this capability.

BUT THE missile was kept a secret by the IDF and the defense establishment as well as by Rafael until 2011. By then it had also been sold to international customers and used in conflicts far from Israel’s borders.

The Spike’s first international customer was the British Army, when it asked Israel to urgently assist it in protecting its troops – and one specific soldier, Prince Harry – from fighters in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2007.

“They needed something very relevant for the battlefield in order to protect the prince from mortar attacks,” Marmor said. 

Rafael worked around the clock to make the system relevant for the British Army, but in the end the prince wasn’t deployed to Basra, “and so the need wasn’t so urgent. Nevertheless the missile was used in Basra” and in Afghanistan, where the Brits had also deployed troops in the fight against the Taliban.

“In the end, the system was more reliable than the prince,” Marmor said, chuckling.

Following their satisfactory deployment, the British ordered more missiles, and other countries soon followed.

The missile has since been sold in various versions to 38 countries worldwide, including 20 NATO forces. Over 33,000 rounds have been produced and supplied, and as many as 45 different platforms integrated, including attack helicopters, ground vehicles and marine vessels.

The IDF also has thousands of Spike missiles, including specially customized Spike SR rocket launchers for its infantry forces that have a reduced weight of 40% to provide greater flexibility to troops in the field during land maneuvers. It’s also in use by the Israel Air Force and Navy.

According to Syrian reports, the Spike missile has also been used by Israel against Iranian targets in the war-torn country, most recently this past weekend when a weapons storage unit was struck outside of Damascus in a rare daytime strike.

Rafael now has three missiles in the Spike family – Spike NLOS (non-line of sight), Spike ER (extended range), Spike MR/LR (medium/long range), and Spike SR (short range).

“The Spike is a brand name; it’s a whole big family,” Marmor said. For militaries around the world, “the brand is almost as famous as Nike or Coca-Cola.”

The most popular, Marmor, said is the Spike LR2 fifth-generation missile, which is used by infantry units around the world.

And three decades after the idea of a missile stopping a convoy of enemy tanks first became a reality, for Marmor, there’s still a lot more that can be done.

“We are always developing and improving the missile. We are always working on its ranges, abilities, lethality, and to make it more efficient on the battlefield,” he said. “We never stop; we can’t. Because if we ever stop, we won’t be relevant anymore.”•